The Key West Film Festival celebrated its fifth annual iteration this past week. It’s a special kind of film festival in that it arrives at the end of film festival season and right at the start of awards season. It’s short at only five days, making for a perfect long visit to the island. Screenings aren’t always packed and most of the visiting film critics have seen many of the festival films you would have expected them to have seen by now. It’s a leisurely as the island itself. The program varies from movies many will be talking about as awards season arrives and smaller films unique to the festival or rarely programmed at other festivals.
Let’s start with the big movies. This year featured Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women as the festival’s opening night film. During the festival, attendees also had a chance to see Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea. These are all films you will probably being hearing more about as various organizations hand out their year-end prizes, leading up to the Oscars in March. Independent Ethos has plans to at least have reviews for La La Land and Manchester by the Sea closer to their commercial release dates.
I did not see 20th Century Women and La La Land at the festival, as I arrived for only the weekend. I can say, however, that Manchester by the Sea is a beautiful subversion of death and grieving. The film floats on Lonergan’s brilliant counterpoints of a score filled with famous adagios contrasted against mundane, humbling life on screen. Actor Casey Affleck will be one to watch for his internalized pain, which teeters on a simmering abyss of anger and despondency below a superficial steely attitude. It’s an astonishing performance of reserve.
Meanwhile, the festival did not shy away from the smaller films. There’s an aspect of the fest that supports nascent filmmakers, from as young as high school. It regularly dedicates a program to short films by students from Key West High School. For the second year, the Brett Ratner Florida Film Student Showcase, awarded a cash prize to university student filmmakers. Congrats go to the documentary “Ballet Bus” by Isaac Mead-Long and the short fiction “The Interlude” by Ruth Reitan, who both hail from the University of Miami. On a larger short film scale the festival has the Florida Filmmakers showcase, featuring a curated group of 12 shorts, this year selected from 300 submissions. Congratulations there goes to Michael Marrero and Jon Rhoads for winning the Golden Conch for Best Key West Film. Below you will find the startling teaser for their short.
Below is a breakdown of all the winners:
- First Annual Critics’ Prize: Contemporary Color by Bill Ross and Turner Ross
- Audience Award for Best Narrative Film: La La Land by Damien Chazelle
- Audience Award for Best Documentary: Sour Grapes by Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell
- Audience Award for Best Foreign Film: Lamb by Yared Zeleke
- Audience Award for Best Florida Short Film: “Retro Couture” by Christopher Rapalo
- Best LGBTQ Film: Strike a Pose by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan
- Golden Conch for Best Key West Film: “Buzzcut” by Jon Rhoads and Michael Marrero
- Brett Ratner Florida Film Student Showcase: “Ballet Bus” by Isaac Mead-Long of the University of Miami and “The Interlude” by Ruth Reitan of the University of Miami
- Golden Key for Excellence in Costume Design: Mary Zophres
- Golden Key for Career Achievement: Burt Reynolds
Yes, Burt Reynolds was present at the Key West Film Festival for a screening of the documentary The Bandit by Jesse Moss. His appearance came on the second day of KWFF. From what I heard, he was a bit infirm and walked around with the help of the cane. He also did not care much for Boogie Nights but was a delightful storyteller about those ‘70s movies he remains best known for, one of which, of course, inspired the documentary’s title. You can see some of his on-stage interview at the San Carlos Institute with Rolling Stone film critic David Fear in a Facebook live video from the festival below:
The award for costume design for Mary Zophres was a highlight during the awards ceremony. She was there representing La La Land and an encore screening for Hail, Caesar! (Hail, Caesar! relentlessly sends up old Hollywood studio system — a film review). Her Golden Key was presented by a legendary costume designer in her own right, Deborah Nadoolman Landis. She gave a great introductory speech opening with an important note about those Academy awards: “Sometimes, the best costume is not the one that you notice, because costumes, if they’re done right, are supposed to completely disappear into the story. Those are not the costumes that win the Oscar, but they are sometimes the costumes that win the Oscar for Best Picture.”
She was probably referring to No Country For Old Men, which won the Best Picture prize back in 2008. When Zophres, who has been working with the Coen Brothers since Fargo, went on stage to accept the recognition, she admitted this was only the second award she has received in her career, and the last one came only last week. So maybe La La Land will be her chance, come the big party in March.
This writer was also part of the awards ceremony, in that it was my second time participating as a judge as a visiting film critic. Last time I helped choose the The Brett Ratner shorts winners and participated on the film critics panel. This time I was part of a group of film critics who judged several features in the KWFF’s first annual Film Critics Prize. We considered many films. I was part of an early group tasked to narrow down the final films in the running. Even though I was still home in Miami, it gave me a chance to see more films than I could have had been there for the weekend alone. Among them, it burdens me to say, the weakest was Folk Hero & Funny Man by a rather friendly filmmaker named Jeff Grace (we had Cuban sandwiches at Sandy’s Cafe with several other film critics the day I arrived). Featuring some well known comedic actors, like Alex Karpovsky, Michael Ian Black and David Cross, the film had a stilted quality oozing a bit too much sincerity, as characters were moved around plot points in a polished production featuring rather banal camera work. Conflict felt less essential and more contrived. But hearing a Karpovsky’s character actually say “cut the mustard” without any irony made it an easy decision to cut the film from consideration.
It was harder to decide between the two other films, both of which had Jewish themes, and in all likelihood, viewers will have a chance to see at later film festivals or theatrical runs. The Last Laugh by documentary filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein focuses on the ultimate dark joke in Jewish humor: The Holocaust. It features such Jewish comedy greats as Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner and Sarah Silverman tackling the touchy subject and how to deliver any joke relating to the Holocaust with both finesse and sensitivity. Beyond that, and what made this documentary so good, is an alternate narrative featuring a survivor of the Holocaust named Renee Firestone. Her story adds poignancy to the film. It is her story that transcends the humor, as she embodies what it is like to live with a tragedy that defines one’s identity.
Finally, my submission for consideration to my fellow film critics was One Week and a Day by Israeli writer-director Asaph Polonsky. Like, Manchester — another one of the films we considered — it dealt with a profound grief with humor. But unlike Manchester, it brandished its theme a bit more heavy-handedly. Sometimes it failed to walk the delicate line of humor and drama with the delicate touch of someone like Lonergan. It was still worth recommending. For the most part, the film’s deadpan humor worked, and Shai Avivi plays the embittered mourner with a suffocated human warmth. As much as this man hates getting attention for the loss of his son, he understands the value of life. It also features an impressive indie rock soundtrack by Tamar Aphek and Carusella.
Ultimately, our jury chose to acknowledge the winner as Contemporary Color by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. It’s a documentary of a musical performance but so much more than that. The event, conceived by Talking Heads founder and frontman David Byrne, began with his fascination with color guard competition. Color guard teams were paired up with musicians like tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent and even the surviving members of the Beastie Boys to perform at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena. There were 10 performances that culminated in a delightful, dynamic shared bow at the end.
The film has various strengths that work well in unison, just like the musicians and the color guard teams. A vérité style gives a look backstage and even at the audience, which is matched by more polished presentations of snippets of the performances. The camera never lingers on anything or anyone for long, sometimes images are superimposed. When there are talking heads, pardon the pun, they are brief and are often done wide enough to capture the energy of putting on a show around them. More profoundly, the film resonates with a joy of performance that neither the young dancers nor the veteran musicians can escape. It’s infectious and speaks to how shared bonds can transcend races, ethnicity, orientations and creeds, a little something this country can use something more of.
After all the partying ended, following the awards, and most everyone left by Sunday morning, I had a chance to experience something new at the festival: there was a room in one of the venues featuring virtual reality programs, a genre still very much in development but worth looking at during film festivals. One day a version of this medium will surely become a new form of entertainment. The one VR experience I chose was “Notes on Blindness,” not exactly the most entertaining selection only because it was so powerfully moving. The 30-minute experience took its time to develop and featured the haunting words of writer and theologian John Hull, who went blind in 1983 just as his son was being born. The events in the goggles and between the headphones take place in ghostly outlines of reality in blue matrix images against a black background. It marvelously, if frighteningly, captures the sensation of a man who has lost his sight and how “sees” things through a mix of sound and memory. It was an eerie experience.
The final film of the festival for me was the foreign language award winner, Lamb. A film hyped as the first Ethiopian movie that has ever made it into the Cannes Film Festival. Beyond the stunning shots of the country’s lush mountainous landscape, lies a deep-seated humanity transmitted through the relationship between a boy who likes to cook in a society with rigid gender roles and the barren lamb he chooses to protect as his pet. That lamb is more than a character quirk. She’s totem to the memory of his deceased mother, who taught the boy how to cook. The film is beautifully shot features a gorgeous patchwork of color in the sets and costumes. However, the beauty of the place belies an archaic social structure that hardly allows a person individual freedom.
Lamb‘s director and writer Yared Zeleke was present for the screening, and he revealed that the film began in Key West based on a story he wrote and a handful of generous, locally based investors. He spoke of the thousands of children he auditioned for the role before it went to Rediat Amare, who gives a quiet moving performance as the film’s lead. He also gave credit to Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies for capturing the region’s impressive landscapes.
Looking back on this ruminations of movies I saw at Key West Film Festival, death was a key theme. I never planned that. It speaks to the warmth of the festival at its organizers that nothing ever felt depressing. It was a celebration of film that allowed viewers to contemplate the deeper elements of life with little sense of dread or heavy-handedness. I look forward to their sixth iteration.